Ad fraud: It’s worse than you think.

It isn’t so much the size of the problem, but rather its implications.

affaA recently published report by White Ops, a digital advertising security and fraud detection company, reveals that the source of most online ad fraud in the United States isn’t large data centers, but rather millions of infected browsers in devices owned by people like you and me.

This is an important finding, because when bots run in browsers, they appear as “real people” to most advertising analytics and many fraud detection systems.

As a result, they are more difficult to detect and much harder to stop.

These fraudulent bots that look like “people” visit publishers, which serve ads to them and collect revenues.

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Of course, once detected, the value of these “bot-bound” ads plummets in the bidding markets.  But is it really a self-correcting problem?   Hardly.

The challenge is that even as those browsers are being detected and rejected as the source of fraudulent traffic, new browsers are being infected and attracting top-dollar ad revenue just as quickly.

It may be that only 3% of all browsers account for well over half of the entire fraud activity by dollar volume … but that 3% is changing all the time.

Even worse, White Ops reports that access to these infected browsers is happening on a “black market” of sorts, where one can buy the right to direct a browser-resident bot to visit a website and generate fraudulent revenues.

… to the tune of billions of dollars every year.  According to ad traffic platform developer eZanga, advertisers are wasting more than $6 billion every year in fraudulent advertising spending.  For some advertisers involved in programmatic buying, fake impressions and clicks represent a majority of their revenue outlay — even as much as 70%.

The solution to this mess in online advertising is hard to see. It isn’t something as “simple and elegant” as blacklisting fake sites, because the fraudsters are dynamically building websites from stolen content, creating (and deleting) hundreds of them every minute.

They’ve taken the very attributes of the worldwide web which make it so easy and useful … and have thrown them back in our faces.

Virus protection software? To these fraudsters, it’s a joke.  Most anti-virus resources cannot even hope to keep pace.  Indeed, some of them have been hacked themselves – their code stolen and made available on the so-called “deep web.”  Is it any wonder that so many Internet-connected devices – from smartphones to home automation systems – contain weaknesses that make them subject to attack?

The problems would go away almost overnight if all infected devices were cut off from the Internet. But we all know that this is an impossibility; no one is going to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It might help if more people in the ad industry would be willing to admit that there is a big problem, as well as to be more amenable to involve federal law enforcement in attacking it.  But I’m not sure even that would make all that much difference.

There’s no doubt we’ve built a Frankenstein-like monster.  But it’s one we love as well as hate.  Good luck squaring that circle!

Digital display advertising: (Still) looking like the weakest online promo tactic.

untitledI’ve blogged before about the lack of engagement with online banner advertising, and as time goes on … the picture doesn’t change much at all.

When you break it down, online banner advertising is a bust on several levels:

 

  • As of the most recent stats, clickthrough rates on online banner advertising are running about 0.08%. That translates to fewer than one click for every 1,000 times the ad is served.

 

  • Based on current pricing for online banner ads, that one click might be costing anywhere from $5 to $10 (and it might have even been an accidental click).

 

Despite these “inconvenient truths,” nearly two-thirds of digital ad spending continues to go to online banner advertising based on a “cost per impression” pricing model. Why?

One answer is that it’s an easy way to advertise a product or service. Simply supply ad creative to the publisher and let it be served online.

Another may be that advertisers consider banner advertising to be a basic component of any promotional campaign: prepare a mix of direct marketing, some search engine marketing, some print advertising and some digital display advertising, and you’re off to the races.

A third reason — related to the one above and I suspect one big reason why so much digital display advertising persists in the B-to-B realm in particular — is that publishers who offer a suite of promo tactics as part of a specially priced integrated program always throw in digital display advertising as part of the mix. It becomes the default option for advertisers as they approve bundled programs and the discount rates that come along with them.

Here’s a suggestion for advertisers going forward: Push back a bit and ask publishers to come up with alternative program options that don’t include digital display advertising.  The revised program might not look as promising at first blush, but then remember the stats above and you may well see the attributes of the alternative program in a more positive light.

Ad blocking goes big-time.

Adblock-PlusA new milestone of sorts has been reached in the ad blocking realm. Adblock Plus, the leading ad blocking tool, has just announced that it’s just passed the 100 million marker in active installations.

An earlier milestone – 500 million downloads – was reached at the beginning of this year. That means the active user base has now doubled in less than half a year.

If these figures are accurate – and there’s little reason to think that they aren’t – it’s a pretty big deal. No longer is ad blocking an exotic functionality that’s the exclusive preserve of techies or other geeky subgroups.  It’s gone majorly mainstream.

What’s driving the ad blocking business is the ubiquity of online advertising. For many viewers, it’s nothing short of intolerable:  obtrusive, irritating, and sometimes creepy (hello, retargeting).

So once a well-functioning and reputable tool like Adblock came along, it was only a matter of time before it would take on “snowball-rolling-down-a-mountainside” proportions.

AdBlock Plus promises “annoyance-free web surfing.”  But as with most any innovation, there are one or two hitches. For Adblock Plus, it’s something called “Acceptable Ads.”

untitled“What’s that?” you might ask. It’s a white-list program that allows certain advertisers through Adblock’s screen.  The company receives a cut of publishers’ revenues through that program.

Fundamentally, it’s how Adblock Plus makes money. But it’s also how advertisers can do an end-run around the very service Adblock provides.

AdBlock goes to great pains to “explain” its rationale and why the Acceptable Ads program makes sense for everyone.

But it isn’t difficult to see where this might end up.  Larger advertisers will see fit to exempt themselves from ad blocking by paying for the privilege of their ads being served.

Which gets us right back to where we were with advertising in the first place, doesn’t it? Pay to play.

What’s old is new again, I guess. And meanwhile, the online ads just keep coming …

Twitter’s Continuing Monetization Challenge

Press reports have been pretty consistent over the past year or so about the underwhelming financial performance of Twitter.  Here’s the trend line for Twitter shares of stock since the beginning of 2014:

 

Twitter share price trend

 

… And beyond the financial performance, I’ve been writing about Twitter’s fundamental business challenges off and on for well over five years now.

While Twitter undoubtedly has its place in the social realm — its place in “breaking news” is a biggie — it remains a frustrating platform for advertisers, which is one reason Twitter’s business model has turned out to be less effective than Facebook’s.

Recent stats from eMarketer reveal that over 50 million Internet users in the United States are accessing their Twitter accounts via any device at least monthly.

That equates to about fifth of U.S. Internet users — and nearly three in ten people active on social networks.

So … this means that many people are seeing ads on Twitter. And that’s confirmed through an evaluation conducted by Cowen & Company which finds that well over half of U.S. adult Twitter users are e encountering ads on their Twitter feed at least every 10 or 20 tweets.

Predictably, most of the advertising pertains to retail, app installations and travel. Those are pretty relevant as broad advertising categories.

It’s just … many Twitter users aren’t finding the ads effective.  Here’s what Cowen’s findings show in terms of user feelings about Twitter advertising:

  • Ads on Twitter are relevant and/or insightful: ~3%
  • Ads are OK: ~26%
  • Ads are not really relevant: ~45%
  • Ads are usually a poor fit: ~14%

These results suggest that advertisers need to improve their targeting capabilities significantly if they wish to reach the right audience segments with relevant messages.

More fundamentally, current attitudes about Twitter advertising pose continuing challenges for Twitter as it attempts to further-monetize its platform. The tepid performance of Twitter shares since the beginning of 2014 underscores how the company continues to cast about for answers to that fundamental challenge.  I wonder when (or if) the company will ever figure it all out.

The FTC Cracks Down on Native Advertising Abuse

But what difference will it make? Only time will tell …

FTIt had to happen: After years of publications uploading native advertising content that’s barely labeled as such, the Federal Trade Commission has handed down new guidelines that leave very little wiggle room in what constitutes proper labeling of paid advertising material.

Published under the title Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements, the FTC’s new guidelines, which run more than 10 pages in length, make it more difficult than ever to “camouflage” advertising as “legitimate” news content.

What it boils down to is the stipulation that any sponsored content must be clearly labeled as advertising – using wording that the vast majority of readers will understand instantly.

Here’s how the FTC guidelines describe it:

“Terms likely to be understood include ‘Ad,’ ‘Advertisement,’ ‘Paid Advertisement,’ ‘Sponsored Advertising Content,’ or some variation thereof. Advertisers should not use terms such as ‘Promoted’ or “Promoted Stories,’ which in this context are, at best, ambiguous and potentially could mislead consumers that advertising content is endorsed by a publisher site.”

Another key provision is warning against advertising content mimicking the look and feel of surrounding editorial content – things like the layout characteristics, headline design treatment, the use of fonts and photography.

And here’s another kicker: the FTC lumps offending advertisers in the same pile as the people who create the materials, in that its policy statement doesn’t apply just to advertisers.  So ad agencies, MarComm companies and graphic designers, beware.

Quoting again from the FTC document:

“In appropriate circumstances the FTC has taken action against other parties who helped create deceptive advertising content – for example, ad agencies and operators of affiliate advertising networks. Everyone who participates directly or indirectly in creating or presenting native ads should make sure that ads don’t mislead consumers about their commercial nature. 

“Marketers who use native advertising have a particular interest in ensuring that anyone participating in the promotion of their products is familiar with the basic truth-in-advertising principle that an ad should be identifiable as an ad to consumers.”

Of course, these new guidelines are only going to make it harder for advertisers – and publishers – to be able to utilize advertising techniques that have, up to now, been far more effective than online display advertising.

iab-logoPredictably, we’re hearing mealy-mouthed statements from the industry in response. A spokesperson for the Interactive Advertising Bureau had this to say:

“While guidance serves great benefit to the industry, it must also be technically feasible, creatively relevant, and not stifle innovation. To that end, we have reservations about some elements of the Commission’s guidance.”

What bothers the Interactive Advertising Bureau in particular is the “plain language” provisions in the FTC’s guidelines, which IAB considers “overly descriptive.”

Translation: there’s concern that publishers can no longer label advertising using such euphemisms as “partner content” or “promoted post.”

Others seem less concerned, however. Sites such as Mashable and Huffington Post appear to be onboard with the new guidelines.

Besides, as one spokesperson said, “When the FTC issues guidelines, you’re better off when you follow them than when you don’t.”

… That sounds about right.

Consumer E-Mail Marketing: Too Much of a Good Thing?

igAdvertisers often complain about the drawbacks of online display advertising — and it’s not hard to figure out why.

Online display ad viewability, which is defined by the Media Rating Council as at least 50% of an ad’s pixels being in-view for at least one continuous second, is running under 45% these days — meaning that fewer than half of online display ads meet the definition of being viewable.

That’s actually a lower percentage than before; viewability charted closer to 50% in 2014, according to the global media valuation platform Integral Ad Science.

Because of these middling viewability rates, many advertisers look to e-mail marketing as the panacea. Not only is e-mail marketing inexpensive, the rational goes, it’s also more likely to attract and engage recipients.

But here too, the evidence is that there is mediocre visibility, too. And in this case, it’s actual willful ignorance.

According to the results of a study conducted earlier this year by business technology research firm Technology Advice, ~40% of the ~1,300 U.S. adults surveyed reported that they completely ignore marketing-oriented e-mails.

Of the ~60% who reported that they do open marketing e-mails, only a little over 15% do so on a regular basis.

Here’s a breakdown of the underwhelming stats that were gathered by Technology Advice:

  • ~58% of recipients read from 0 to 25% of marketing-oriented e-mails sent to them
  • ~21% read 25% to 50% of the marketing e-mail sent to them
  • ~13% read 50% to 75% of them
  • Just ~8% read 75% to 100% of them

In an attempt to “juice” these figures, marketers are experimenting with robust personalization in e-mails that become evident even before anyone opens them (e.g., personalization showing in the subject line), along with offering clearly marked discounts and other promo attractions.

In this regard, consumers do expect businesses to provide “value” in exchange for their attention, which explains by ~40% of the survey’s respondents are responding to discounts and similar promotional offers above all other types of e-communiqués.

But with such modest levels of people interacting with any marketing-oriented e-mails at all, there’s a question as to how whether these ploys to improvement engagement are just nibbling around the edges.

Because the reality is, there’s a big portion of the market that’s become jaded about e-mail.

Another approach seems counter-intuitive but just might be working better: reducing the frequency of e-mail solicitations from advertisers.  That theory is supported by the Technology Advice research, which found that nearly 45% of respondents feel that businesses would improve their marketing effectiveness by actually sending them less frequent e-mails.

A case of “less is more”? Probably so.

The Ad Fraud Gravy Train Keeps Chugging Along — No Matter What …

xbnAd fraud is quite a large issue for online advertisers – and it’s been on many companies’ radar screens for a long time.

But even with the higher visibility and greater scrutiny of online ad fraud, it seems to be a problem that only gets bigger.

The most recent example of the phenomenon came to light a few weeks ago, when ad fraud prevention consulting firm Pixalate announced that a newly discovered botnet has been draining literally billions of dollars from advertisers’ MarComm coffers.

The botnet is dubbed Xindi – the same name as the hostile aliens in the Star Trek sci-fi TV series.

Xindi is making money for its creators by serving actual ads – but to simulated audiences.  It has spread via familiar methods such as phishing.

Pixalate estimates that just shy of 78 billion fake ad impressions have been racked up so far.  Even at low cost-per-impression revenue figures, the high volume amounts to several billions of dollars of illicit revenues siphoned (and counting).

What makes the Xindi botnet particularly nettlesome is that it’s designed to go after computers and networks at high-end organizations, enabling it to “mimic” desirable web traffic (i.e. affluent consumers).

xbotAccording to Pixalate, already there could be as many as 8 million computers compromised in more than 5,000 networks, including a goodly number of Fortune 500 companies as well as university and governmental networks.

Such desirable locations and ad audiences translate into lucrative online ad pricing (CPMs of $200 or more).

In the event, advertisers are paying high prices … for nothing.

To counteract Xindi, Pixalate recommends that the Internet Advertising Bureau update its protocols to factor in the pace of ad requests, so that impression generated after a certain time period cannot be accepted as valid — and hence would be non-billable.

Whether this or other remedies will actually happen is up in the air at the moment (the IAB isn’t onboard with the recommendations).

Either way, what seems clear is that whatever the remedial actions that are taken, burgeoning ad fraud activity is bound to continue.

The question is, can it ever be contained, or will it just continue to grow and grow?  If you have any thoughts or ideas on the challenge, please share them with other readers.